All-day, every-day kindergarten coming to ISD 831 next fall

Mary Bailey
Community Editor

The Forest Lake School Board last Tuesday voted 6 to 1 to restore kindergarten to five days a week.

Beginning next fall, families will no longer have to pay to get their 5-year-olds to school every day.

Ever since 2004-2005, when the district discontinued half-day kindergarten because of transportation costs, families with kindergarten students have had two choices.

One is to have the child attend school all day, two days a week. Classes run Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday, with alternating Fridays.

The other choice is to pay the district for all-day, every-day kindergarten. The cost is $2,800 per year, or $1,700 for families qualifying for reduced-price lunches, $550 for those who receive free lunch.

Some families consider this well worth the expense, especially if both parents work. Others combine kindergarten with child care, and a third group enjoy having their youngsters home with a parent for a good chunk of the week.

But some families have found another option: Leave the district.

“I’m not sure we can afford not to do this,” said Superintendent Linda Madsen, “particularly in the Lino Lakes area.  If we lose students to another district at the kindergarten level, they typically stay in that district.”

The program is expected to cost the district about $500,000 per year.

Madsen said moving to a full kindergarten week is part of the district’s strategic plan. “Marketing is keeping students in the district and attracting students to the district,” she said.

School districts that already offer all-day, every-day kindergarten include Stillwater and St. Francis, she said, plus some schools in Anoka-Hennepin. Centennial, which shares a border with Forest Lake District 831 in Lino Lakes, is considering the idea.

Besides keeping students from taking their state education dollars elsewhere through open enrollment, another advantage of full-time kindergarten is fairness. All students get the same academic opportunity, not based on ability to pay.

Board member Kathy Bystrom said removing the cost barrier to full-time kindergarten is the biggest factor. “Before, for a lot of them it was a non-option because of cost,” she said.

“This can be a great springboard for long-term educational achievement,” said board member Erin Turner. “ It’s expensive at $300 a month, but I’ve had a lot of comments from people in the community, all positive.”

At a district-wide meeting, kindergarten teachers expressed support for the idea.

To accommodate parents who don’t want the change, families will be given the option of a short week: skip Monday and Friday; show up Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday.

But there’s a catch: The short-week kindergarten will be not be offered at every elementary school. Instead, if their numbers are sufficient to justify a section, these 5-year-olds will be bused to Forest Lake, riding secondary buses on the secondary school schedule. (This is how district residents get their kids bused to Lakes International Language Academy and St. Peter’s Catholic School.)

The secondary school day starts much earlier. In District 831, elementary schools hold classes from 9:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The junior highs run from about 7:40 a.m. to about 2:10 p.m., and the high school goes from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Under the current plan, when these short-week kindergarteners enter first grade, they could go back to their home elementary schools or enroll in Central Montessori Elementary at the Central Learning Center in Forest Lake.

At the Dec. 6 board meeting, member Dan Kieger suggested offering the short-week option at local elementary schools if possible. “Put it in the kindergarten roundup information,” he said. “If there are enough at your school, you don’t have to travel.”

Board member Karen Morehead voted against the measure. “Not all parents appreciate having the kids gone all day every day,” she said in a phone conversation after the meeting. The school’s compromise, pulling kindergartners out of their local school and putting them on an earlier schedule, “didn’t do it for me,” she explained.